The situation off of the Horn of Africa remains so much more complex than what we’re reading about in the American press.
I've written previously on OS about the roots of the Somali piracy problem -- a fairly simple and straightforward story that somehow eludes most of the press and just about all of the bloggers (including the two on the cover of OS today).
More on that subject at the end of this post.
But first, if we've got so many Navy ships over there, how come the pirates are still attacking merchants and getting away with it?
Well, it's a big ocean out there. Too much water for a few warships to cover. We could monitor it successfully -- especially with a few more assets (other Navies, 24 hour p-3 air support), but not with what we've got out there right now. Which leads nicely into the second and more likely reason why U.S. anti-piracy efforts seem to trudge along with an at best mixed track record: we're not trying all that hard.
Back in 2006, I spent 76 consecutive days at sea off the coast of Mogadishu as part of an anti-piracy mission on a U.S. Navy warship. We had tons of intel going in. The Navy had been milling around the area for years. With a few precision bombing runs, the Pentagon could have decimated piracy in the region.
But, the Navy maintains a presence off the coast of Somalia for the same reason its ships now roam the Caribbean hunting drug boats (both traditional missions of the Coast Guard): to boost media exposure and keep funding levels high.
And it makes sense. "Piracy" does indeed grab the headlines. Swashbuckling press means that the Navy's budget floats along or increases, even as the Army and Marine Corps demand billions of extra dollars annually for this ongoing era of the "war on terror."
While my ship was on station in '06, we had three other U.S. Navy vessels working with us. The exercises and plans were elaborate -- including one that sought to bait the pirates with a fake merchant ship. However, the entire time we remained on station, a Belorussian (in other words, international mafia) merchant ship tracked us from just inside the 12 nautical mile territorial water line.
Despite repeated requests from the U.S. captians in the area, the Pentagon refused to violate the failed state of Somalia's territorial waters claim.
This obviously infuriated and befuddled the captain of our warship. He wanted more than anything to send a boarding team over to the Belorussian vessel and at the very least, ask some questions and look around. But, our captain never got his wish. The Belorussian helmed "merchant" stayed within its 12 nautical mile magic safety line and relayed our every move to her partner units on the ground.
When we were in the area, things were incredibly quiet: no pirates, no fishermen (which look exactly like the pirates by the way), no merchant traffic... just us and that ship we couldn't board on the other side of that magic line.
When we left station to refuel at sea a couple hundred miles away, or to take a port call in the Seychelles or Mauritius, then stuff would happen (what a surprise).
Our little four ship piracy task force broke up about the time Israel started bombing the hell out of Lebanon (Our larger command ship was sent to evacuate foreign passport holders from Beirut). We submitted extensive feedback reports up the chain of command, but things have pretty much stayed the same. The Navy is doing the same things in the Indian Ocean now as it was in 2006 and before. The gaps in Naval presence and weak-handed tactics remain.
But... If the piracy vanishes completely, Congress might start asking questions about the viability and necessity of the massive and out-dated U.S. Cruiser/Destroyer and Amphibious fleets... Will taxpayers and leaders finally realize that outside of the nuclear carriers and the fast- attack submarine force, our Navy has just about zero relevance or real mission capability in the post-cold war world? Just Sayin...
Now... where did this piracy come from? Most of the following is from my November 18 post on Open Salon:
Piracy wasn’t an issue when Somalia had a real government and a coast guard. Revolutionaries overthrew dictator Mohammed Siad Barre in 1991. Somalia has been in limbo ever since.
Two northern regions of the former state long ago declared independence and have since ruled as sovereign nations, but without international recognition.
In the south, near the former capital of Mogadishu, war continues to rage.
A distinct ethnic group has survived on Somalia’s desolate Indian Ocean coasts for centuries through sustenance fishing.
The region off the coast was/is legendary for its incredible abundance. This proliferation of sea life was maintained on into modern times because commercial interests were never allowed to pounce. Once the Somali government fell in ’91, Somalia lost its ability to protect this ethnic group from outside corporate fishing interests.
According to international law, all countries with open ocean coastlines own an exclusive economic zone ranging out 200 nautical miles from their shores. The U.S. officially recognizes the EEZ, as do most nations.
But, without a legitimate Somali coast guard to protect these EEZ rights, Asian fishing conglomerates from South Korea, Japan and China moved into Somali waters and employed commercial methods to harvest fish from within the Somali EEZ. The coastal people watched helplessly as they were driven to the brink of starvation by the sudden over-fishing of their seas (in the midst of a civil war, no less).
Some keen fishermen finally realized that these commercial groups were seizing their catches illegally. The fishermen decided to form their own private coast guard—which was unrecognized by any international court or government.
Becoming desperate after the major Asian fishing groups ignored their demands for fee permits, the new Somali “coast guard” began seizing boats as collateral.
The international community came to the aid of the fishing corporations. Still, the small-time fishermen—without even the most basic modern tools of navigation—experienced some success. They made a little money. Ransoms were paid and the ishing boats from far away toned down their collective raping of the local waters…
However, this small measure of justice again went unrecognized internationally. Worse still, it drew the attention of some of the warlords fighting for control of southern Somalia and Mogadishu.
Several warlords brought food, resources and guns to the coast and enlisted these generational fishermen—often by force—to continue to capture ships. When the warlords brought their sudden massive loot to the table, the international criminal community forced its iron into the fire.
Thus, we have organized mafia-style “piracy” (and my friend the Belorussian).
The three men killed over the weekend were most certainly at the bottom of the chain. They may have been conscripted.